Record/Erase. Films reviewed: Synonyms, News from Home

Posted in Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, France, Israel, New York City, soldier by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s November now and Toronto’s fall film festival season is in full swing. ReelAsian is showing films from Asia – including Japan, Korea, China, Philippines in the Pacific, South Asian, and from the Asian diaspora from around the world, including Canada and the US. Films include dramas, comedies, anime, documentaries, art and again this year virtual reality, with a piece based on the work of Joy Kogawa. Cinefranco shows French language films, this year featuring movies by Franco-Ontarian directors. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, shows one film from each country in the European Union. This still includes the U.K., in case you’re wondering, despite all the Brexit craziness. And more to the point, all films are showing for free at the Royal Cinema!

This week, I’m looking at two movies, one from the 1970s and one from right now. There’s a filmmaker from Bruxelles who moves to New York to record what she sees; and a man from Israel who moves to Paris to erase who he is.

Synonyms

Dir: Nadav Lapid

Yoav (Tom Mercier) is a traveller who arrives in Paris with a plan: learn French, blend in with the culture, recreate himself. life. He’s originally from Israel, a sniper in the army, and wants to get rid of his past. And he’s helped toward his goal by a series of unexpected events, both good and bad. Good news: He arrives at a B’n’B with a key to an empty apartment. Bad news: When he takes a shower the next morning, everything he owns – all his clothes, his money, his passport – is gone stolen by a stranger. He ends up running naked through the apartment trying to catch the thief, ending up curled in a foetal position, almost frozen. Good news: an attractive young couple, Emile and Caroline (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte), find him and nurse him back to health. And better news, they give him some beautiful clothes to wear, help him find a place to live, andmore. Bad news: despite trying to erase his Israeli past, all his jobs seem to be with forner soldier buddies or at the embassy itself, with unexpected consequences.

What begins as simple flirtation turns into a potential love affair… but with whom: Emile or Caroline?

Synonyms is a dark comedy about conflicting identity, immigration, and clashing cultures. It’s partly a tender ménage a trois about a stranger introduced into the lives of a young couple. It’s also an absurdist comedy, satirizing Israeli military culture, its overt masculinity (verging on the homoerotic in a number of scenes), as well as a paranoid fixation on persecution, with themselves as victims. And it equally satirizes the immigration process in France, in which newcomers are instructed to assimilate, to hide their religion and ethnicity beneath a veil of loyalty to secularism, and the French way of life. The director previously brought us the equally strange and brilliant film The Kindergarten Teacher (I reviewed here) a few years back. This film, Synonyms is completely different, and much lighter in tone, but equally perplexing. And Tom Mercier, in the main role, is someone you should look out for.

News from Home

Dir: Chantal Akerman

It’s 1976 in lower Manhattan. Huge cadillacs cruise through empty alleys in the meatpacking district, leaving loose newspapers fluttering in their wake. On the subway, riders glare at the camera, or stare wide-eyed in curiosity. In the tunnels beneath Times Square, mom’s with toddlers, people commuting to work, and businessmen with their buddies walk past a stationary 16 mm camera. Through a moving car window, storefronts and gas stations and taxis and pedestrians walk up and down a West side avenue. This is a moment in time captured in architectural grandeur by avant garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

And over the top you can hear her voice reading the letters, largely unanswered, her mother Nelly sends her from Belgium. Her mother is worried their separation could be permanent, or worse dangerous, and sneaks twenty dollar bills into the enevelopes in case her daughter is in trouble. (Nelly’s own parents were killed in Nazi death camps.) The film itself is both drab and hypnotic, a series of ordinary, detached images of people and places that act like a time capsule; combined with deeply intimate glances into her relationship with her mom.

You may have heard Chantal Akerman’s name before but probably haven’t seen her work.

But her influence is everywhere. I was just describing one of her earliest films, News From Home. She went onto make many films, both mainstream and avant-garde. She was a pioneer in Feminist cinema, queer cinema, and experimental film.

She was also a tempestuous perfectionist and hard to work with, falling into depressed funks or driven by manic episodes. At the same time, she is hugely influential. Todd Haynes studied her work, Gus van Sant used it as a source for Last Days, his film about Kurt Cobain, and people as different as Sofia Coppola and Weerasathakul Apichatpong were shaped by Akerman’s work. You may not know this, but even films like Joker used News From Home as a model for its images of NY City in the 70s.

I am far from an expert on Chantal Akerman – I’m a movie critic not a filmmaker – but if you’re a director, a cinema studies majors, or a film festival enthusiast, the current retrospective is a rare opportunity to see her work in its entirety. And thanks to Andrea Picard, co-curator of the program: most of what I’m saying is based on cribbed notes from a talk she gave on Akerman.

Synonyms starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. The retrospective News From Home: the films of Chantal Akerman begins today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Women and their Discoveries. Movies reviewed: The Kindergarten Teacher, Diary of a Teenage Girl, She’s Funny That Way

Posted in Acting, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Drama, Israel, Movies, Screwball Comedy, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2015

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

This week I’m looking at three movies about women and their discoveries. There’s a drama about an Israeli kindergarten teacher who discovers her 5-year-old student is a poetic genius; a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in San Francisco who discovers what sex is all about; and a screwball comedy about an escort who longs to be discovered as a Hollywood star.

Kindergarden_Teacher_TheThe Kindergarten Teacher

Wri/Dir: Nadav Lapid

Nira (Sarit Larry) is a kindergarten teacher in Israel who attends a poetry group. She leads a lackluster life: her kids have moved out and her husband is dull. But then she notices a kid in her class named Yoav (Avi Shnaidman). She sees him pace back and forth, almost in a trance, and recite an amazing poem he had composed in his head. Not a kid’s nonsense rhyme – a dramatic, spare masterpiece with biblical allusions, and profound observations.

His nanny Miri (Ester Rada) says it’s just something the kid does. His father – a rich, divorced restaurateur — is unimpressed. To him, poetry is a952 waste of time.

But Nira is blown away by his poems and feels she has to do something more. Mozart was composing symphonies in his head at the age of four. If no one records Yoav’s masterworks and shares them with the world, a poet of a generation could be lost. Yoav becomes the centre of all her attention, in and out of class. He gives her a new sense of purpose. She realizes her reaction doesn’t quite make sense – especially in an era where poetry has lost its importance — but she vows to “save” Yoav and his poems, whatever the consequences.

The Kindergarten Teacher is an excellent drama with an unexpected twist. It may have a simple premise, but it’s a subtle, disturbing and complex film. Nira’s character in particular touches on a wide range of troubling issues: racial discrimination, morality, sexuality, misrepresentation, and art.  The Kindergarten Teacher is a very good movie.

e8acff96-2532-4295-a01b-6f7b36599697Diary of a Teenage Girl
Wri/Dir: Marielle Heller

It’s the mid-1970s in San Francisco, and the city is rife with hippies, underground comix and free sex. And right in the middle of all this is Minnie (Bel Powley), the 15-year-old girl of the title. She lives with her mom (Kristen Wiig) and her little sister. Mom dresses to kill and thinks of Patty Hearst as her model. She drinks and parties till she passes out. Mom’s current boyfriend is Morgan (Alexander Skarsgård), a tall guy with a goofy blonde moustache. Mom likes to think of Minnie as her friend and confessor – no secrets between them.

But there is a secret: Minnie’s first sexual experience – and her 19976004-14bc-45a8-aefe-cca85b70056aongoing relationship – is with Morgan. She chronicles her story (and all her other newly-awakened sexual adventures) using a tape-recorder she keeps hidden in her closet. She also hones her comic book skills with explicit, black and white drawings, modeled on the work of underground comic artist Aline 7327ebd5-d2fa-4664-8c9e-ffc254758144Kominsky. Together with her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) she explores the sex, drugs and counterculture of San Francisco. She’s quick to undress and loves teaching the guys she meets new tricks. But can her secrets stay secret?

Bel Powley is excellent as Minnie, a quirky, adventurous girl testing the waters between childhood and adulthood as she comes to terms with her family. Diary of a Teenage Girl is a nice, light story with an adult theme, made beautiful with animated sequences of her drawings.

SN_D1_075She’s Funny that Way
Dir: Peter Bogdanovich

Izzy (Imogen Potts) is a young sex worker and aspiring actor from Brooklyn. She has a devoted following as an escort, (including a judge who stalks her) but less so as an actress.  When she spends the night with Arnold (Owen Wilson) a successful director in town from L.A., her life changes. He says I’ll never see you again but here’s $30,000 (he hands her a suitcase of money) to pursue your goal as an artist and leave prostitution behind. She agrees. The next day her agent gets her an audition for a Broadway play – in the role of a prostitute. She’s a natural! Everyone loves her audition except the play’s director – it’s SN_D24_011_11Arnold from the night before!  The other lead actors in the play are Arnold’s wife (Kathryn Hahn) and her possible ex-lover (Rhys Ifans) – both of whom are staying in the same hotel. Add an angry psychiatrist (Jennifer Anniston) a stalker and a private detective to the mix, and you get lots of confusion, fake names and lovers hiding in bathrooms.

SN_D4_166She’s Funny that Way is funny that way, in the manner of an old-skool screwball comedy. Imogen Potts’s (with a hit-and-miss Brooklyn accent) is wonderful as Izzy, and the rest of the cast is loaded with dozens of stars in cameo roles.

Now screwball comedies are a neglected genre, and one I really like. But even more interesting is the backstory for this film. Peter Bogdanovich was a huge director in the 70s, with What’s up Doc, Paper Moon, and The Last Picture Show, all either set during the depression, or else – like this one — done in the style of old Hollywood movies.

Maybe you remember the name Dorothy Stratten. (Her story has been toldDorothy Stratten in films like Star 80.) She was a sex worker from Vancouver, a Playboy centrefold, very pretty, who wanted to become a Hollywood star. And Peter Bogdanovich gave her her big break, casting her in a movie called They All Laughed. But her ex-husband was still obsessed with her and stalked her… and murdered her before the movie was released. A tragic story. But there’s more:  Bogdanovich paid for the schooling of Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, and after she graduated, he married her. She went on to write the script for this movie. This movie is a tribute to Dorothy Stratten told not as a tragedy but as a classical Hollywood comedy with a happy ending.

She’s Funny that Way, Diary of a Teenage Girl and The Kindergarten Teacher all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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